When Earth is conquered by a technologically superior race called the Grath, humanity is forced to work–and fight–for them. But not all humans are content to submit to their masters…
When we last saw Jason Cull and the crew of the Freedom, they had just succeeded in risking everything to trade one problem for another.
The ruler of the mighty Bettarian empire had agreed to free the Earth from its enslavement, all Jason had to do in exchange was take care of the one thing in the universe that the emperor was afraid of.
Couldn’t be that hard, right?
GENRE: Science Fiction ISBN: 978-1-925574-76-0 Word Count: 89, 377
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The jungle was hell.
Thorny gray vines everywhere; rustling in the hot, swirling winds or creeping irresistibly forward and clawing at us with their barbs. I’d found them twining about my feet and legs the moment Norman called us to a stop. I’d since declined to stay in one place.
Just more biomass for the blender, I suppose.
The air was alive with the hum of quickly moving wings; an entire ecology’s worth of insect-like creatures illuminated in brief glimpses as they passed in and out of our beams of light. The helmet lamps probably drew the bugs, but the coils of growth above us were so completely intertwined that the darkness would otherwise have been impenetrable. Winged critters ricocheted off my environmental suit every few seconds with audible zings. Dozens took a more cautious approach and crawled across it looking for vulnerable seams.
I prayed that they wouldn’t find one. A number of the things sported long, hook-like snouts and I didn’t enjoy breathing ammonia.
Even with my suit unbreached, its filters were overmatched. The pungent smell and humidity of the place were somehow getting through, making me feel light-headed and drenching me with sweat. We needed to wrap this up in case we were all slowly succumbing to atmospheric poisoning.
“I think I’m beginning to see why Talnas is not a booming tourist destination,” I said. “How much longer do you think you’re going to be Norman?”
The man crouched on the jungle floor in front of me grunted, tugging another length of flora toward the blender. The vine looped back on itself as he forced it into the funnel-shaped opening, like it was trying to escape its fate. Norman grunted again, louder, and shoved it in.
The machine buzzed, momentarily louder than any of the insects, and the vine jerked back out of Norman’s hands as its tip disintegrated. The broad plastic jug beneath the machine’s opening filled a little higher with grayish-green paste and a vent on the side spit blackened waste products onto the ground.
“That depends. We’ve already got more of this than any of us are going to want to eat.” He tapped the side of the jar. “Do you want me to try rigging it for catalyst?”
Dwayne, standing guard a few feet away, turned in our direction.
I’d told Norman repeatedly that the dwindling supplies of crucial chemicals weren’t something I wanted him making a fuss about in public, but he often had very selective hearing.
“No. We’re done.”
“Look, I know I said we’ve got quite a while, and we do. But we’re probably not going to find a better environment for refueling.” He gestured towards a line of bugs making a suicidal march up the side of the blender and into its maw.
I sighed. We had discussed this.
“Then we’ll come back here later, if it proves necessary.”
I was planning on choosing the first option I found that would make it unnecessary.
The blender, which took alien biomass and turned it into an unappetizing sludge that we could eat, was Grath technology. I knew Norman believed he knew how it worked, but I wasn’t so sure he actually did.
I might have let him screw around with it back before the Grath had found our base at Sherwood Forest and driven us out; but now it was too important to break. Without our stockpiles, the blender was our only long-term source of food. If he was going to play with the thing he was damn well going to do it in a controlled laboratory setting and test it out first, not fiddle with it in the middle of a pest-ridden jungle.
Norman’s enthusiasm over tinkering with new technology had been known to get the better of him. He didn’t always think things through in his excitement. He had some rather significant scarring to prove this.
I could see Norman frown through his faceplate, but he bent to begin working the blender free from the vines that had grown to wrap around it.
“If you say so, Captain.”
I activated my radio.
“Freedom, this is the away team. We’re heading back.”
“Thank God,” Dwayne said. “I’m going to be scratching myself for a week just thinking about this pace.”
He swatted at a cluster bugs on the forearm of his suit. His broad hand came away dripping purplish gore.
The speakers in my helmet spat static.
“Catch anything tasty for dinner?” Eve asked.
I’d left the girls in charge of the ship. The other guys were out in the Darts. Even Robbie. He certainly needed the practice. No way he could crash the thing just parking it in low orbit, right?
“All the gruel you won’t want to eat, fresh from…” I looked at a nearby vine covered in a mass of squirming insects. “Well, it’ll be better if you don’t know.”
“Yum,” she replied. “Be safe coming home.”
“See you in a minute.”
The Freedom wasn’t far from our location, though Eve had had to put it down on an outcropping of rock that didn’t support the local vegetation. We hadn’t gone very deep into the jungle, just enough to have plant matter within easy reach. It was shocking to find ourselves bursting out into open space after only a few steps.
The nighttime sky here was actually quite beautiful. Talnas had no moon, but the stars twinkled brightly in a sky of deep blue velvet. A pity the aggressive plant life made it impossible to see from most parts of the planet.
I helped Norman hoist the blender and we hurried across the fringe between the jungle and the little plateau holding the ship. Dwayne followed along more slowly and kept a watchful eye out.
It wasn’t far to walk, but I was glad to have him there. Lately things had made a habit of sneaking up on us. We’d just lost a friend to one set of aliens, and then been driven out of the place we had thought of as home by another. I felt like the whole universe was out to get us and it was making me jumpy.
Manhandling a full blender back up the rocks proved a lot harder than carrying an empty one down from the ship. After Norman and I narrowly avoided spilling it a couple of times, Dwayne nudged me away and essentially carried both the blender and Norman up the slope himself.
I glanced around nervously, waiting for some tentacled monster to erupt from the jungle.
We reached the airlock without incident. They put the blender down. Norman leaned against his knees, breathing heavily. Dwayne slapped the control that sealed us in. Something on his shoulder flicked its wings.
“Julia, we’re going to need some serious sterilization,” I said.
There was a brief pause.
That had come out poorly. I cringed, imaging her weighing potential comebacks.
“My, and I thought you and Eve were taking precautions,” she said.
I felt my face redden. It wasn’t professional for me to be sleeping with a crewmate. Even less so for me to allow Julia to speak about it openly. I guess I no longer had it in me to waste effort on appearances.
Some of us had trained to be cadets, the rest had found their way into the Grath resistance piecemeal, and none of us had had anything like actual military experience. During our first action in the field we’d lost Lucas, our leader. Since then, we’d been doing our best impersonations of soldiers. I guess I was no longer as dedicated to the act.
Everyone knew that Eve and I were a thing, so why hide it? With so few of us left did it matter if you knew the captain was playing favorites? It wasn’t like I was going to be able to keep anyone out of the action or ignore their input; we weren’t going to succeed without everybody lending a hand.
I was sure that my inability to impose disciple on the crew, hell on myself, would probably get us into trouble in the long run. But I hadn’t even wanted to be captain, and maybe it was better this way. It made us less like an incompetent military unit and more like a dysfunctional family.
As it was, that little barb had been far less insulting than most things that Julia usually said to me.
There was a hiss as the alien atmosphere was pumped from the chamber. Bugs began to pop into bloody clouds in the ensuing vacuum. We did our best to shake the remainder off. I imagined on the cameras we must have looked like a trio of toddlers badly needing to go potty.
There was a hum and the lighting in the room changed from fluorescent white to faint blue and then back.
“Looks clean,” Julia said.
Air from the ship’s tanks began to blow back into the chamber.
I worried about our oxygen supply now that we’d lost Sherwood Forest. The ship recycled as much as possible, of course, but the process wasn’t 100% efficient. We had to extract it from planetary atmospheres now and isolate it. We could store less of it than the food, however, and we wouldn’t last long if we somehow ran out and weren’t near enough to an oxygen rich world.
That was a real concern, given that even with a functioning jump drive it was often hours from when you entered a system to putting down somewhere orbiting close to its sun.
The three of us removed our suits, placed them into slots where they would be autoclaved and prepared for reuse. Clad only in our sweat-soaked t-shirts and underwear we began to scratch at the imaginary bugs we could still feel crawling across our skin.
“Dibs on the shower. I called it first,” Dwayne said.
“Sorry, I’m pulling rank,” I told him.
“Pays to be captain, I guess.”
I shook my head.
“Norman worked real hard out there. It was tough going wrestling a hundred pounds of flora into that blender, and we weren’t doing much but watching.”
Dwayne looked at our companion. Still scrawny, but after that last serious engineering accident, the burn marks had obscured most of his freckles. His head was shaved, which was his new habit, as hair only grew sporadically across his skull now.
The goofiness had been burned right out of him, I reflected. We hardly ever called him ‘Noron’ anymore.
“That he did,” Dwayne agreed.
“Well, if you’re offering,” Norman said. The inner lock opened. “Make sure that food goes right in the fridge and the blender gets a good rinsing.”
He took off at a sprint.
Dwayne and I looked at the jug of chunky paste we’d be eating for the next month. I knew from experience it probably tasted even worse than it looked.
“I’m sure it just needs a little salsa,” Dwayne said, reading my mind.
I hit an intercom on the wall.
“Eve, get the Darts back on board and prep for launch. Dwayne and I will be up once we’ve changed into fresh uniforms.
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
I looked at Dwayne, he nodded back silently.
We hefted the blender and headed for the refrigeration unit.
* * *
Robbie dipped a cracker into his bowl of gruel and squinted skeptically at the results before taking a bite.
“And we’ve got a month of this to look forward to, eh?”
I held up a spoonful of my own.
“Hey, it’s kind of green this time,” I said. “It must be good for us.”
No two blender batches ever seemed to come out quite the same. I swallowed quickly, hoping to escape the taste but failing. My old Academy roommate tried another bite of his cracker and made a face. He took a long pull from his mug of coffee.
“Why haven’t we left the system yet?” he asked.
I took the question for what it was–table talk, idle curiosity and not critique. Robbie was the honest sort. No cunning lurked behind his plain brown eyes. We were eating together in my cabin, so I didn’t have to worry about anyone overhearing my answers.
Losing Alexia had thrown our schedule into tatters. We worked in four-man shifts now. A fifth crew member, namely me at the moment, was fighter pilot on-call. Robbie was currently off shift along with Julia.
“Honestly? Without Sherwood Forest to go back to, one system seems as good as another. Why put the ship through another jump? I prefer a system where I know nothing is happening to one where I can’t be certain what we’re walking into.”
He shrugged, finished his cracker, picked up his spoon.
“Maybe you’ve got the right idea.” He gestured at his remaining saltines. “Why ruin a perfectly good cracker?”
“Never thought of ‘tasteless’ as being a point in their favor, am I right?”
“But what’s our next move?” he asked. “Will we be doing some more spying on the Vex soon?”
That was our primary mission now, in a nutshell.
After escaping the Earth, we’d basically thrown ourselves at the mercy the Grath’s nemesis, the Bettarian Empire. And in retrospect, jumping into the middle of Bettarian space in an armed ship built using Grath technology may not have been the brightest way to make first contact. But after some months spent in quarantine and then many more begging various minor political officials for help, it was revealed that their Emperor Oba had been following our progress with interest from the start.
It turned out he needed a sucker.
“I’m not so enthused at the prospect of tangling with them again,” I admitted. The one small Vex ship that we had engaged recently had nearly taken the Freedom and every one of her fighters down all by itself. If not for some quick thinking and blind luck, it probably should have. “I don’t want to enter their space again without a solid plan.”
“Maybe we find a less busy system? One with just a few of their smaller craft in it?”
“That’s a great idea. I’ll give their navy a call right now and ask them for a map of their current troop deployments.”
Robbie stirred his gruel meditatively, perhaps working up the nerve to take another taste.
“We’re not as completely in the dark as we used to be, you know. The emperor scrubbed our computer of any evidence that we’d gone near Bettarian space, but I was able to memorize some coordinates from their star charts. I’ve got a general idea of where their borders with the Vex are.”
Oba had laughed at my offer to help him defeat the Grath in return for Earth’s freedom. His empire spanned galaxies. He had ships beyond count. What good was one more?
I hadn’t considered the extent to which the Earth’s occupiers were inflating their egos. The Grath might consider the two civilizations rivals, but the Bettarians were mostly just amused and appalled by their neighbors’ antics. They didn’t really take them seriously.
The Vex, on the other hand, secretly had the emperor terrified. His techs had gone through a great deal of trouble just to ensure that if our craft was captured, the Vex wouldn’t be able to track it back to him.
I sighed, knowing Robbie was trying to help. If we couldn’t find a way to help the Bettarians beat the Vex, then we were ultimately failing everyone back home on Earth.
“We’re not ready yet. I don’t like our chances against any number of those things, I don’t care how small.” I worried that might sound too negative. We were going to have to face the Vex eventually if we were going to discover their weaknesses. “I just mean that we need to figure out a strategy for how to beat them in a fight before we try anything.”
Our recorders had some film on them, at least. We could study the tendencies of whatever make of ship it was that we’d fought.
Norman was running some experiments on the debris from the vessel that we’d destroyed, and he and Julia were trying to deduce information about their weapons by studying the damage done to the Freedom. Maybe it would somehow all amount to something.
Robbie ate another spoonful, winced.
“Look, I think the way to go about it is to avoid a fight entirely. Last time the Vex didn’t react to us until we got close to one of those scientific-looking vessels. I think the stealth technology was working like the Bettarians had suspected. I bet if we could steer clear of those specialist ships we’d be okay.”
“We think,” I countered. “They could have been aware of us all along and just been waiting for us to blunder into firing range.”
He opened his mouth to respond, but I held up a hand.
“I’m not saying that you’re wrong, just that we have to be prepared for it if things go sideways.”
“Because they always do.”
“That’s just our luck.”
He scraped at his bowl. He’d eaten most of it. A valiant display.
“Don’t suppose there’s any word on the Patriot?”
I paused with my own spoon halfway to my mouth.
“No, you have any ideas on how to contact them?”
Almost forgotten in our escape from Sherwood Forest had been the fact that we’d finally received word from the resistance. They had left us a message while we were out wooing the Bettarians and informed us that they’d secretly had another spaceship all along. We weren’t alone in the void. Talk about a major revelation.
The only problem was that the Grath owned the Forest now and I didn’t think it was likely we’d ever be able to find each other in the infinite haystack that was space. I secretly feared that the Patriot would return to the Forest in search of us and be captured.
“‘Fraid not,” Robbie replied. “But we could always try the rest of the coordinates in the ship’s memory. If we find another stockpile, we’d have a new base, and could likely wait for them there.”
“It might be worth a shot,” I said. I didn’t have much faith in the idea, however.
There were a number of jump point entries highlighted in the Freedom‘s database, but Lucas hadn’t lived long enough to tell us why the resistance had thought they were important. Even worse, the exact coordinates of the most important locations were locked with passwords that we had no access to.
If there was another stockpile, and I had a hard time believing the resistance had had the opportunity or the resources to create another copy of our old base, I felt certain it would be one of those high security items.
Robbie pushed his bowl toward the center of the table.
“I’d better get ready for my shift,” he said. “See you on the bridge in a few?”
“I’ll be there with bells on.”
Robbie left. I cleaned up our dishes and straightened out my uniform in the mirror.
I had a few minutes until the current shift ended and the next one, which had me on duty rather than on-call, began. I decided I might as well show up early. This had been an unusual occurrence a short time ago, but ever since we lost Alexia I had felt guilty at the prospect of wasting any time while others were working double shifts.
I entered the bridge just in time to catch the tail end of a discussion between Victor and Dwayne over whether my second-in-command should try growing a moustache. The mental image struck Dwayne as funny, and his deep laugh echoed across the small compartment.
Eve glanced up from the science console just long enough to roll her eyes at them, and smiled when she saw me.
I wondered what exactly it was that she saw, as I did every time I pondered the fact that this small, slim and dark-haired beauty appeared to love me as much as I loved her.
“Captain on the bridge.”
Victor rose from his seat at the helmsman station and managed a fairly professional-looking salute.
“All’s quiet, sir.”
I nodded to him absently and he returned to his chair.
“Very good, I won’t complain if it stays that way.” My eyes were drawn to where Norman sat working at the navigation computer. He had dragged a beaten up old worktable onto the bridge from somewhere in the bowels of the ship and across it lay a selection of jagged bits of metal and diagnostic equipment.
I eyed the set up with some trepidation.
Admittedly, as long as he had already calculated an escape route to use in an unexpected contingency, there wasn’t much work for him to be doing as navigator at the moment; and I wasn’t totally against people doing things on the side to keep from being bored, given it didn’t interfere with their assigned duties.
This was Norman we were talking about, however.
At least there was some evidence that he had learned from past mistakes. All of the items lay inside insulated containers, and there was none of the usual frayed wiring connecting anything directly to the ship’s power core.
“Doing a little free play on the side, are we Norman?”
He flinched at the question, had probably been too engrossed in his own thoughts to note the announcement of my arrival.
I took a closer look at the items on the table. To me it was just unidentifiable junk, busted up ship parts.
“I didn’t see any harm in letting him work on a research experiment as long as he proved to me that everything was safe,” Victor said.
“That’s fine, you’re usually better than anyone at keeping our mad scientist here in line.” Which was true; the safeguards present here were more likely Victor’s doing than Norman’s.
Victor beamed at my slight praise. I turned back to my engineer. He was looking all fidgety in his chair. “Well, spit it out before you burst. It’s obvious that you’ve got something.”
Norman picked up one of the larger chunks of scrap.
“This is a piece of the Vex craft we defeated that I extracted from the wing of Victor’s Dart.” He grasped it at both edges and strained and the material bowed ever so slightly, showing it had a bit of give. “You’d think it was steel or something similar to look at it, but it’s not. It’s too flexible and it…feels wrong. There are elements in this stuff that Julia and I can’t even identify.”
“Hopefully not radioactive ones.”
He gave me a dark look.
“I checked everything over with a Geiger counter before I started working with any of it.”
“Okay, so what’s the big deal?”
He held the fragment of metal out to me and I leaned forward to inspect it. It was silver and glossy. Mirror-like where not marred by black burn marks. The edges were uneven and sharp, but given the trauma that the Vex craft had undergone when it was blasted with fire and then destroyed, I was surprised to see that this fragment had no further defects.
Gingerly, I reached out and touched it. The feel of it did surprise me. It was not cool to the touch, but slightly warm, and the metal felt tacky where I expected it to be smooth.
Vaguely interesting, but hardly mind-blowing.
“What exactly am I supposed to be seeing?”
“Notice the pattern?”
“No.” He tilted the thing back and forth in the light until I could faintly make out a grid of lines and rectangles, visible only as dull spots against the material’s mirror finish and running the length of the shard. “Yeah, okay. What is it, embossed?”
“I think it’s more like printed circuitry.”
“Alright, circuits printed directly on an unknown metal. Cool idea, if we had the equipment, or the undiscovered elements, or even a compelling reason to apply it.” I hoped this wasn’t another case where Norman was just geeking out over some alien technology without considering the limited resources or uses for it we had aboard the Freedom. “And this discovery is meaningful because…?”
“The circuitry isn’t dead.” Norman smiled. “I mean, it’s just a tiny piece of a busted up ship, I assumed it would have lost all of its functionality. But then I tried probing it with a voltmeter, to see what kind of current it might have been designed to carry and something strange happened.”
He picked up a boxy instrument from his table and attached a lead to the point where one of the dull lines of circuitry met the warped edge of the fragment.
I heard a beep from the voltmeter, but nothing visible happened to the material in Norman’s hand. I tapped my foot, waiting.
He frowned and gestured with his head, since both of his hands were occupied.
“Come here. Look at the readout.”
I stepped around the worktable to stand beside him. The voltmeter’s small square screen was filled with lines of monochrome green gibberish.
“It looks to me like the unfamiliar technology is frying your instrument,” I said.
“No doubt it is, but look closer. I’ve seen my share of readout glitches. This is something else. See the spacing between the characters? The variety but repetition?”
He paused for effect. My resulting blank expression was apparently not what he’d been hoping for.
“This is a message in Vex,” he hissed.
To me it looked like a display error and some wishful thinking. I tried for diplomacy.
“Maybe, but sometimes it’s easy to trick yourself into seeing meaning that isn’t there.”
“I’m telling you, it’s some kind of language. That means this thing is interfacing with the meter and trying to communicate. Or, at least, ask us for some new instructions.”
I still didn’t see it, but as his ego seemed to be tied up in this somehow, I didn’t mind him studying it further in case there was really something there.
“Could we hook it up to the translation software?” Dwayne asked.
That was a possibility. I hesitated. Negatives began to occur to me.
“I’m not certain if that is such a good idea. If that thing is trying to reprogram any foreign technology in comes in contact with, what will it do to the ship?”
“Yeah, we don’t want the Freedom picking up any alien malware,” Victor agreed.
Norman looked thoughtful. “There has to be something that we can do.”
“Sir!” Eve’s sudden outburst grabbed everyone’s attention. “I’ve got movement out there.”
All eyes turned to the forward canopy. Eve projected her screen onto the primary display. Norman dropped his voltmeter and sat down, rapidly typing at the keyboard to confirm the equations of his planned jump and ready them for Victor to execute.
A couple of contacts, too distant to identify, had jumped in while we were talking.
“Do you think they’ve seen us?” I asked.
“I don’t know, sir.” She shrugged. “They should be in communications range if they’ve spotted us. It’s possible the stealth technology is working.”
“Or whoever it is might not be in a talking mood,” Victor said.
I watched Eve’s readouts on the screen, taking some confidence from the mild pace of their approach.
A Grath ship that wanted to catch us before we jumped out would be coming in faster, and I felt pretty sure anything built by the Vex would be too. That meant it was probably somebody else, or that we weren’t their target. At least, not yet.
“Hang in a little bit longer,” I said. “Let’s see who we’re dealing with. Victor, be ready to jump on my command.”
“Already am, sir.”
I sank into my captain’s chair, keyed on my microphone.
“Everyone to the bridge.”
The dots on the screen got bigger. After about a minute, Robbie and Julia came jogging through the door.
“What’s up?” Robbie tugged at the collar of his uniform to straighten it.
Julia glanced from Eve to the distances counting down on the forward display.
“We should have ship identification within a few seconds if they’re in the database,” she said.
Julia was our best science officer. This reminded me that most people weren’t at their optimal stations currently. I wondered if we had enough time to play a short game of musical chairs.
Eve’s station beeped and the images on the screen changed. The dots became tiny depictions of small Bettarian carriers, only a little larger than the Freedom.
I could feel the tension go out of the room.
“Should we contact them, sir?” Eve asked.
I shook my head.
“Oba didn’t want there to be any evidence of us working with the empire,” I said. “It would be safest not to talk to them until we have some ideas about how to handle the Vex. In fact, even if they try to contact us, I don’t want to answer.”
What did it mean when you even had to run away from your friends?
“Norman, our course is set for the Valis system?”
I nodded to Victor.
“Jump us out then, we’ve been here long enough.”
“On three,” he replied. “One…two…”
And the universe went all out of proportion.